In the area of our psyche, the media wields frightening power. As consumers, we may believe we are active participants in the media. There may be an assumption that we choose our media, that we police its affects, that we understand its affects, and that we successfully counter any negative stereotypes or insensitive cultural representations that our media may depict with our own innate sense of self.
We may believe that the media does not teach us how to think. We may also believe that our creativity and self esteem is in our hands, to nurture or decimate as we see fit. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. This paper represents an engagement with the work of three authors who have studied the personal and private effects of the media on the individual’s psyche: Stuart Hall, James Lull, and Laura Mulvey.
As these authors demonstrate, media representations, specifically those of “the other,” – namely, all the women, and all of the other races on this planet besides Caucasians – still exact a heavy toll on our creativity, our ability to take risks, and our ability to hold, bolster, and develop our self esteem. Simply in seeing ourselves as “other,” affects our self worth detrimentally and sometimes irreversibly.
The controversy surrounding British sprinter Linford Christie and the British tabloid press in the mid nineties illustrates a crucial and heart breaking example of the media’s might in the area of self esteem. The British tabloid media’s antiquated cultural representations of black men cruelly and utterly robbed this tremendously gifted and hard working athlete of his moment of glory after winning the gold medal in the 1992 Olympic games (Hall 230).
Rather than highlight the training, sacrifice, and mental focus that Christie demonstrated in becoming an Olympian, the British newspaper The Sun instead chose to focus on the “vulgar, unstated but widely recognized ‘joke’ at his expense: namely that the tight-fitting Lycra shorts that he wears are said to reveal the size and shape of his… ‘lunchbox’ (Hall 230).
Said “joke” actually crossed the boundary into marketing, as Hall notes, when a firm approached Christie to inquire about marketing their lunchboxes using Christie’s image (Hall 230).
Christie, understandably, felt the joke was racist, and inappropriate given the context. Hall carefully highlights the effect that the media had on Christie’s self esteem in this case: Christie felt “humiliated” (Hall 230). He had just won Olympic gold, arguably one of the highest honors awarded. Yet the media’s focus on stereotypical elements, namely, the expansiveness of a black man’s genitals, undercut Christie’s honor completely.
As Christie notes, “it happened the day after I won the greatest accolade an athlete can win…I don’t want to go through life being known for what I’ve got in my shorts. I’m a serious person” (Hall 230). Herein lies the media’s impact: the absolute erosion of any potential credibility “the other” may earn, in one fell swoop.
As Hall notes, one of the most effective weapons in the media’s arsenal is to direct our focus. In placing the focus away from the Olympic gold and on to Christie’s shorts, the media successfully “eclipsed” the black man and “turned him into a penis” (Hall 230). The effect, as evidenced by Christie’s reaction, eroded some level of self esteem that Christie had associated with the win.
The media also affects and to a large extent directs ideology, again through its power to focus attention on certain elements and ignore others. Theorist James Lull points to the fact that “some ideologies are elevated and amplified by the mass media, [and] given great legitimacy by them” (Lull 16). In this regard, the media has an insidious ability to manipulate individual creativity on the unconscious level.
Since certain ideas promoted by the media find their way into ideology, as Lull explains, these ideas “assume ever increasing importance, reinforcing their original meanings and extending their social impact” (Lull 16). Often these ideas serve the ideology of the elite, and form “ideological sets that overrepresent the interests of the powerful and underrepresent the interests of the less rich or simply less visible people” (Lull 16).
The net effect on creativity is that some ideas gain leitmotif status and enjoy constant repetition and dissemination, while others cannot find a foothold in the ideological wall.
Creativity that perhaps originates in a lower class, or comes from an “other,” perhaps a black man or a woman, necessarily receives less attention, unless it fits with the prevailing ideology, essentially, unless “the other’s” creative product continues to abase him or her in some way. The media tells us what creativity has value.
Laura Mulvey’s 1975 psychoanalytic essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema highlights another important effect of the media on both creativity and self esteem, specifically as it pertains to women.
Mulvey’s work essentially revealed that the media – in this case film – had succeeded not only in directing the attention of the viewer, but also of sexualizing that attention, essentially locking film in to an exclusively male gaze, exclusively focused on desire, and locking women out of the view completely, relegating them to the passive status of forms to be looked at, wanted, and controlled, and removing all female agency.
In film, Mulvey argued, “the image of woman as passive raw material for the active gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form – illusionistic narrative film…thanks to the possibility in the cinema of shifting the emphasis of the look.
It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself” (Mulvey 757).
The medium of narrative film affects female creativity and female self esteem in the sense that it has an intrinsic quality of rejection of female input in any other way besides silently, passively, and sexually. The limits that this places on a female filmmaker’s creativity are obvious; the effects it has on her self esteem perhaps less so. Mulvey’s message, sobering though it is, sounds the battle cry for filmmakers of all genders to “free the look of the camera,” and return creative agency to film (Mulvey 757).
Media representations, specifically of those populations who are non white and non male, still struggle to make visible – let alone do justice to – the enormous diversity of human life that we are blessed with on this planet. Ironically enough, for all the marvelous technology that we have at our disposal, we are still hamstrung by an obsolete ideological framework that controls the media. Self esteem can marshal creativity, and the goal of the future must be to free the media from its backward stance.
Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of the Other.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Ed. Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1997. 223-290. Print.
Lull, James. “Ideology, Consciousness, Hegemony.” Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. 6-43. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 747-757. Print.